How Democrats Are, and Aren’t, Challenging the Trump Economic Record

NASHUA, N.H. — Ask Democratic candidates for president how they would challenge President Trump’s boasts about the economy, and the initial response tends to be less an attack than a concession.

“The overall numbers about G.D.P. or the stock market are great,” said Elizabeth Warren after a town hall here last week, before discussing long-term wage stagnation and health care costs.

“Yes, we are at a moment of stability, and we’re at this moment of expansion,” said Amy Klobuchar at an economy-themed talk at Dartmouth, before saying that made it a good time to address inequality and climate change.

“So Donald Trump is elected in the last two years — and I will confess, even he couldn’t screw up the momentum,” said Michael Bennet on “Meet the Press,” before mentioning housing, health care and higher education costs.

This speaks to the fundamental challenge that the eventual Democratic nominee is likely to face next year: an economy that is easily the strongest in two decades, with an unemployment rate at 50-year lows. How does a Democrat answer Mr. Trump’s inevitable claims that he has done more for the economy than any president ever?

Economists have some perfectly good rejoinders, which Democratic candidates for the presidency and many of their supporters are happy to articulate when asked.

Amy Klobuchar at a campaign event this month.CreditWin Mcnamee/Getty Images

In particular, since Mr. Trump’s inauguration, the United States has experienced more a steady continuation of an expansion underway for the last seven years of the Obama administration than a meaningful acceleration of growth.

Tax cuts and spending increases have fueled the recent good times, raising the budget deficit and implying a slowdown could occur as those effects wear off. And while wages have started to grow a bit faster — 3.2 percent over the last year, versus 2.6 percent at the time of the 2016 election — they are not rising nearly as fast as they did during other prosperous periods in recent decades.

But these kinds of nuanced arguments are usually not the stuff of campaign rallies. And if the overall economic numbers remain strong, the Democratic nominee will be looking for a pathway to defeat Mr. Trump that is distinctly different from those taken the last two times an incumbent president lost. Historically, when a president seeks re-election, it amounts to a referendum on the state of the economy.

The last two one-term presidents were undone by economic slowdowns; they battled jobless rates of 7.4 percent (George H.W. Bush) and 7.5 percent (Jimmy Carter) on Election Day. The unemployment rate currently stands at 3.6 percent.

Michael Bennet at an event in Washington.CreditYuri Gripas/Reuters

Moreover, voters appear to be more positive about the economy than they have been in many years. In polling by Gallup this spring, the share of Americans who described the economy as “excellent” hovered near its highest levels since 2000, and only 13 percent of Americans mentioned economic issues as the nation’s most important problem.

That helps explain why the candidates are avoiding frontal assaults on the economy. Most prefer to change the subject to longer-term problems than to get wrapped up in debates over the Obama economic record or budget deficits.

“The challenge that Trump could run into in 2020 is that people don’t measure the quality of their economic life in the jobs numbers they see,” said Jacob Leibenluft, who worked in the Obama White House and was a senior policy adviser on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “If you look at what Trump has done from a policy perspective, there’s very little to suggest that he’s addressed the acute problems that people feel in their economic lives.”

Indeed, Democratic base voters — like those who showed up at campaign events recently in New Hampshire — tend to latch onto problems deeper than what macroeconomists normally talk about when evaluating the economy.

“Unemployment isn’t much of a problem, but I know many people here in Nashua who are extremely poor,” said Robyn Robison, 58, at a campaign event for Senator Warren. “They’re working for 50 hours a week to make the rent payment and basic utilities and don’t have anything left over to save for the future. Meanwhile, the tax cuts went to Fortune 500 companies and the wealthiest people.”

That view aligns with how Ms. Warren and other candidates have cast their economic arguments — not so much litigating the state of the near-term economic cycle as making the case that something deeper has gone wrong in recent decades that Mr. Trump has done little to fix.

Speaking with reporters, after acknowledging the overall numbers are “great,” she said: “But they don’t reflect the experience of most Americans. Go around a room like this and for most people wages haven’t gone up in a generation. And yet the cost of housing, the cost of health care, the cost of child care, the cost of sending kids to college has all gone through the roof.”

Joe Biden at a campaign event in Philadelphia last weekend.CreditMark Makela/Reuters

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Joe Biden has chosen a strategy of attributing much of the economy’s strength to the Obama administration in which he served as vice president.

“I know President Trump likes to take credit for the economy and the economic growth and the low unemployment numbers,” Mr. Biden said at a rally in Philadelphia. “President Trump inherited an economy from the Obama/Biden administration that was given to him, just like he inherited everything else in his life.”

That matches the views of many Democratic voters.

“Trump inherited a good economy,” said Walter Hoerman, a pediatrician who lives in Portsmouth N.H. “He never talks about a particular policy he’s done that has helped because he hasn’t really done anything but this tariff stuff.”

“The stock market is fine, but that’s about it,” said Dr. Hoerman, who was attending the Rockingham County Democrats Clambake last weekend where Senator Warren spoke.

Sabina Chen of Pelham, N.H., is a small businesswoman, the owner of a microelectronics manufacturing company that employs 14 people. “It’s been a good couple of years for us — I was able to give my folks bonuses this year,” she said at a gathering for Senator Klobuchar in Salem.

But she then began listing ways that the Trump administration has either made things worse or failed to make them better. “Our health care costs are high, and our health insurance program is not great,” she said. Tariffs resulting from the administration’s trade wars are on track to increase costs of many of her raw materials in the months ahead, she said, which could prove a strain on business.

Moreover, “I’d like to see more investment in education so that my work force is prepared to come in and work at a skilled level,” Ms. Chen said. “As a small-business owner, we can see things that are good for us now, but what are the things we need to continue?”

Democrats are already making more direct criticisms of Mr. Trump’s failure to deliver on some of the economic promises of his 2016 campaign: He has not produced a much better, cheaper health care system, nor made huge investment in infrastructure.

If the economy wobbles between now and Election Day 2020 — something the escalation of the trade war with China could make more possible — expect more of those head-on attacks, and less willingness to concede that the overall economy is doing pretty well.

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